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When Studios Chose Their Own Standards

`NAUGHTY! Bawdy! Gaudy!'' were adjectives for Manhattan's fabled Times Square area in the title song of ``42nd Street,'' perhaps the most celebrated musical of the early sound-film period.

By today's standards, this and other Warner Bros. movies from the Depression era were fairly tame in the material they presented. It's hard to think of a shot or scene that would earn more than a PG or maybe a PG-13 under the current rating system, even though Warners prided itself on a commitment to what production chief Darryl F. Zanuck called ``headline'' stories told in a gritty, quick-moving style.

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But at the time of their original release, there was something bold and adventurous about melodramas like ``Baby Face,'' crime pictures like ``Public Enemy,'' and comedies like ``Gold Diggers of 1933,'' which dealt with realities of sexuality and violence with a comparative frankness that would soon vanish from the American screen. This disappearing act occurred in 1934, when the Hollywood studios responded to outside censorship pressures by strengthening the Production Code, a list of rules and regulations aimed at trouble spots ranging from ``Crimes Against the Law'' to ``Repellent Subjects.''

The energy and excitement of Warners cinema between 1931 and 1934 are the focus of ``Naughty! Bawdy! Gaudy! Warner Bros. Before the Code,'' an ambitious series at New York's enterprising Film Forum theater, where programmer Bruce Goldstein has established himself as one of the most knowledgeable and imaginative movie exhibitors in the United States.

In addition to spotlighting a wide array of worthwhile pictures from the Depression years, the series is a timely reminder of the liabilities that accompanied the supposedly uplifting effects of Production Code morality, which strongly influenced Hollywood as late as the 1950s.

One can understand the code's prohibition of murder scenes that might inspire imitation, and its ban on criminal methods (safe-cracking, dynamiting, etc.) that might be instructive to would-be crooks. Yet one wonders if the taboo on ``sex hygiene'' screened out not only some potentially distasteful images but also the possible usefulness of motion pictures for sensible sex education; and one shudders at the bigotry behind a clause that explicitly forbade intimate relationships between white and black characters.

More generally, one can't help noticing the vagueness of key words and phrases in the code, calling for movies to promote ``correct standards of life'' and outlawing pictures that would ``lower the standards'' of spectators. These formulations are obviously meant to shift their meaning whenever necessary to keep up with popular prejudices. They reflect not a fundamental concept of morality, but an opportunistic desire, on the part of the studios, to sway with the ever-changing winds of public opinion.

In any case, the Film Forum series demonstrates that pre-code filmmakers were perfectly capable of policing themselves, guided by their own sensitivity to audience tastes and (most of all) their unquenchable thirst for booming sales at the box office. While their movies were daring and even startling at times, they remained anchored in recognizable realities of their time and rarely broke the unwritten rules that united Hollywood and its public in an atmosphere of shared understanding.

And the movies were fun! The best of them have an energy and exuberance that few of today's pictures can match, and even the weaker attractions have invigorating moments of solid creativity. Mr. Goldstein actually prefers them to their contemporary counterparts, and it's easy to understand his enthusiasm.

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``Warners had a real studio style,'' he told me in a recent conversation. ``It wasn't only the stars they used, but the `look' of their pictures, the music, the way they were lit and designed. It was all done on the cheap - even their `lavish' productions, like `Female,' were nothing compared with what MGM would have done. They had an off-the-cuff feeling and a high energy level that were amazing.... Their machine-gun pace was really refreshing to audiences after the mannered, tentative style of the early talkies....

``Zanuck was the man behind the style,'' Goldstein adds. ``He wanted [films] to be topical and real, like the '30s equivalent of docudramas.... His movies are more honest and reflect real life better than the code pictures - and better than the silents, too, which were heavily romanticized.''

Code-related efforts at self-purification not only diluted this honesty, Goldstein says, but also contributed to a general lessening of diversity in American film. In the early '30s, for example, ``there was a lot of New York Jewish influence going into the movies. Then there was a backlash, and Jewish characters just about disappeared after 1933....

``It could be that Jewish studio moguls saw what was happening in Europe and didn't want to provide characters that could seem like stereotypes. But the code probably played into this, too.''

True, prejudices and biases play a part in pre-code movies as well as their code-affected counterparts. ``Anyone who befriends a black person [in a '30s film] has to be degraded somehow,'' Goldstein points out as an example, ``and [African-American] jazz is often used as a symbol of how low a person has sunk.''

Still, qualities of freewheeling vigor and inventiveness were squeezed out of much Hollywood cinema when self-censorship became not just a priority but also a preoccupation.

Goldstein and Film Forum are providing a valuable service by calling renewed attention to an era when studios and audiences trusted themselves - not arbitrary lists of warnings and taboos - to reach an understanding about what constitutes valid screen storytelling.

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